If you are a regular attendee of New Hope Community Church, where I serve on staff and worship, then you are aware that compared to many other houses of worship the services seem… different. Some say it’s the music, others say it’s the preaching or our congregational prayer time, and still others have no clue what is going on but many will recognize that it is indeed… different. What’s the difference? Let me share with you what the I believe the biggest difference is, it is following the Holy Spirit’s leading for each and every segment of our corporate gatherings.
You might be saying, “Hey, my church worships the same as yours and any other church.” You may be correct, but I would ask what you mean by worship.
The ever-popular English etymology (history of the word) of worship can be described as “worth-ship,” or ascribing worth to another. But the Bible’s own language presents a more complex picture that can be organized in three word-groups.
The first word-group is the Hebrew word of hishtakhavah and the Greek word proskuneo. These words used in substitute for worship stress submission to another. Translated by the term “worship” in our English Bibles, they describe “bowing down” before another who is worshiped. This represents an ancient way of showing one’s vulnerability and, therefore, submission to the one worshiped. Those who bow down in “worship” indicate that they are consciously stating to God that He is in control of all things that relate to their life.
A second larger word-group presents worship as service or obedience to another, where the worshiper performs what God asks of him or her. Worship as service grows directly out of worship as submission. If I submit to another’s rule, then I am responsible to fulfill the wishes of the one whom I worship. Here we begin to see the unity between worship as “lifestyle” and worship as “praise” for both are ways in which I am doing what God asks of me. In Romans 12:1 Paul says,
I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.
This idea of worship stresses how one honors God in all things. Therefore, my worship is how I fulfill God’s desires for my life in every aspect and fulfill my responsibilities as outlined in the covenant He has made with me. This idea of worship focuses on a relationship founded on obedience. All of life reflects my worship of God. So I worship through both submission and service/ obedience.
The third word-group is often overlooked in worship studies: it is a word group that can be summed up as “remember.” The Old Testament Hebrew word zakar focused on God’s promises for his people in their worship. Every festival, sacrifice, and memorial was designed to promote the worship of God and was instituted as a “memorial.” The idea of a “memorial” is ultimately to “remember” something. We can view the Passover as Israel’s quintessential act of “remembering.” It repeatedly affirmed God’s unique act of covenant whereby he created Israel as a distinct people for himself.
Now these “definitions” or word groups mean nothing if we can’t relate them to today and how we worship… and most importantly how we follow the Holy Spirit’s leading in our worship. We must realize that some people have differing opinions about worship services and what they should look like, sound like, and accomplish. But… whatever we think our worship should be should be firmly backed up with Scripture. We all have opinions on how we should worship, what we should be doing and sometimes, we just aren’t going to agree. Rather than using our own opinions to shape our beliefs and our worship, we must see what Scripture has to say on how we should live, what we should be doing, how we should worship, and what we should believe.
When it comes to the Holy Spirit, most evangelicals fall into one of two extremes. Some seem obsessed, relating to Him in strange, mystical ways. Their experiences with the Spirit always seem to coincide with an emotionally ecstatic moment created by an atmosphere or soundscape. Other Christians neglect the ministry of the Holy Spirit altogether. They believe in the Holy Spirit, but they think of Him the same way many of us think about gravity. They acknowledge it is a thing and it is always present, they would never choose to lose it… but they don’t really interact with it. For these Christians, the Holy Spirit is not a moving, dynamic person. He’s more of a theory.
But… we know that isn’t even scraping the tip of the iceberg for what the Sprit is to us! In John 16:7 Jesus makes His disciples an astounding promise about the Holy Spirit. In fact, I believe many of us overlook it because it seems so ridiculous.
John 16:7 says,
Nevertheless, I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Helper will not come to you. But if I go, I will send him to you.
In this passage Jesus says that it is to His disciples advantage that He return to heaven if it meant they receive the Holy Spirit for themselves!
If you ask Christians whether they would rather have Jesus beside them or the Spirit inside them, which do you think most would choose?
So because of the resurrection and ascension of Jesus we were given the gift of the Holy Spirit as a Helper! Why would we not “tap” into that Helper in the leading of His people in worship? Worship that includes: submission, obedience, ascribing worth, and remembering?
The Holy Spirit appears 59 times in the book of Acts, and in 36 of those appearances he is speaking. “But wait,” some say, “we can’t use Acts as a pattern for our time! The apostles were a unique group.” And I understand that Acts represents a special epoch of apostolic history. But you cannot convince me that the only book God gave us with examples of how the church walks with the Spirit is filled with stories that have nothing in common with our own. John Newton put it this way,
Is it really true that that which the early church so depended on—the leadership of the Spirit—is irrelevant to us today?
So… what happens when we follow His leading in our leading and worship? What opportunities are we presented with in our following? Let’s think together!
- An Opportunity for Guidance
The Holy Spirit guides us. We’re really helpless in getting accurate guidance and direction unless the Spirit works within us. The Spirit is active and present in all junctures of our life. Again and again, Scripture suggests to us that when we open ourselves to God, the Spirit works in us with power and we can rest in His creative work.
Romans 8:26 says,
Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words.
Why is worship different when it is Spirit-led? There are many reasons… but I think one of the primary reasons it is different is because it’s not about us. It’s not about what we want to do, our time frame, our comfort. I have been asked what we have planned during the service and the answer always is the songs, the announcements, and the message. You might be saying, “well isn’t that it?” It might seem like everything is planned… but I believe the goal is to plan with room for the Spirit to manipulate your ideas for what the service is supposed to be.
In my particular case I have a loose 35-minute time frame to play with and I only plan 4 songs the way they are written. I know more… the band knows more… we are capable of playing more. But, we wait for the moment to follow the Sprit’s leading. Our Scripture reading (for the most part), prayers, and speaking that happens in the songs or between songs, are not planned; it is totally Spirit-led. We aren’t challenging or manipulating the Sprit to move, we are merely inviting and waiting. If the service comes where we play 4 songs exactly the way they are written and we have following the Spirit’s leading for the service then it can be deemed a success, on the other hand, if the service comes where we play 2 songs and an extended chorus totally unplanned and in obedience then it too can be deemed equally as successful.
There needs to come a time where we stop to listen and evaluate to make sure we aren’t just singing songs just to sing songs.
- An Opportunity for Freedom
If we claim to live by the Spirit, let us also walk by the Spirit.
Preparation should never breed self-reliance. A secular artist or performer can prepare a wonderful show, but our worship through singing has to be different. What’s the difference? It’s Spirit-led.
A true worship pastor does not walk to the microphone with a polished setlist to perform for the entertainment of the congregation. A true pastor and leader must take the microphone expecting God to work, expecting the Word of God to go forth with power, and praying earnestly for the Holy Spirit do what preparation cannot do… work with power in the lives of sinners to bring about salvation and sanctification. To bring about true life changing Spirit led worship.
Sometimes, it can be a little nerve wracking. There are times where it just seems like the pieces fall together and the will of the Spirit is like a 4 lane interstate that is easy to cruise right down, other times I think the Lord likes to take us down the quiet back roads that wind and bend treacherously. But the road is worth following! Take the opportunity for freedom in your worship!
Galatians 5:16 says,
But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh.
Don Potter was quoted saying,
I have been asked by praise leaders and musicians from various churches how they might obtain more freedom in their congregational praise times. “More freedom” usually means playing music longer, playing what they feel should be played, prophesying with song, or playing instrumentally when led by the Spirit, etc. This is a good question because we are told in II Corinthians that, “Now the Lord is the Spirit; and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty” (3:17 NAS).
If we want the Holy Spirit to be in our worship services, there must be liberty, but all true liberty has boundaries and is gained by our becoming mature and responsible enough to use it rightly.
- An Opportunity to Respond and Grow
Romans 8:14 says,
For all who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God.
In our churches often people want to sit and observe, or just sit back and not participate. Following in the Spirit can help us to move past ourselves and begin to grow in His leading. We must allow ourselves to be stretched. Some of us aren’t always going to be comfortable with what is happening even though it is Biblical.
Remember, we are called to be believers and pursue Jesus more than we are any denomination.
Water amazes me. The way it moves and can find it’s way through the smallest cracks and crevices. Water, although unassuming, is POWERFUL. We have recently witnessed hurricanes and flooding, and to imagine the fact that water can over time cut through rock makes my head want to explode!
When you put an obstacle in waters path, it blocks it and the water has to change flow and go around it. Anything that is static in a rivers path, not moving or flowing with the river, is an obstacle to it. When enough obstacles are laid down, it totally blocks the flow of the river, causing a dam. When a dam is built, the flow stops.
Sometimes our unwillingness to respond and follow the Spirit causes an obstacle to His flow.
Since the gifting of the Spirit people have continually stood in the way of the flow of the Holy Spirit by not responding to Him. Some people who think they are being “very spiritual” or “respectful” by not responding to the Holy Spirit are actually being very carnal and standing in the way. Seems ridiculous that our unwillingness to cooperate could cause an issue, but we know that Jesus did all His works by the anointing of the Spirit. Acts 10:38 says that,
God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power. He went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with him.
With that in mind we can take a look at a story out of Mark where we see that the Spirit’s work can be blocked or impacted by our unwillingness. Mark 6:1-6 says,
Then He went out from there and came to His own country, and His disciples followed Him. And when the Sabbath had come, He began to teach in the synagogue. And many hearing Him were astonished, saying, “Where did this Man get these things? And what wisdom is this which is given to Him, that such mighty works are performed by His hands! “Is this not the carpenter, the Son of Mary, and brother of James, Joses, Judas, and Simon? And are not His sisters here with us?” And they were offended at Him. But Jesus said to them, “A prophet is not without honor except in his own country, among his own relatives, and in his own house.” Now He could do no mighty work there, except that He laid His hands on a few sick people and healed them. And He marveled because of their unbelief. Then He went about the villages in a circuit, teaching.
Here we see that He could do no mighty works. In other words He was prevented or blocked from doing them. This means the Holy Spirit could not do what He wanted to do.
We have to be willing to respond as we are led.
Notice that I said: respond. We don’t initiate the move… instead we should desire to be like a life in a stream that flows where the water takes it. Just like there are different rivers, with different strengths and flows, so there is diversity in the Holy Spirit. There can be different streams that come together and make up a river. The Holy Spirit is diverse. There are multitudes of ways in which the Spirit can move.
What do I mean by respond?
Well it is simple really. If a move of the Holy Spirit comes in in worship, and we all just sit there and look at each other, we are not responding! Not responding is to be as a rock that stands in the path of a river that is trying to flow. The rock becomes an obstacle and the river either has to go around it or is stopped by it.
There are times that we can get so into “our scheduled program” and routine that the Holy Spirit is limited in what He can do. I am not saying don’t have a program, but make sure you have the flexibility to allow Him to change it. If the program says it’s time to sing the last worship song, then have the announcements; and while we are singing an anointing to Praise comes in, then we have a choice: Go with the program or respond to Him.
Flowing with the Spirit can bring greater blessing than just sticking to your program or service schedule.
As a side note:
Don’t hear me saying that we have to be over spiritual and ecstatic extravagant worshippers. Often people only have learned one way to respond to Him so no matter what they sense they respond that one way. Some have learned to shout, so if the Spirit moves in soberness… they shout. If He moves in healing or in revelation… they shout. Because they are limited in their scope of understanding and expressing what He is doing. On the other hand, some have learned to sit in silence, very still and very quiet. There is defiantly a place for this, but if the Holy Spirit is moving in joy and loud praise, that is NOT the time for it! When God told the people to march around Jericho, there was a time He commanded them to shout! If they had stood in silence then, they would have been missing God.
Many people only know, or are confortable with, one response to the Holy Spirit and they have only learned to yield in that way, so every time they sense Him they think that’s how they are supposed to respond. No, there are many ways to respond depending upon what is right according to what He is doing. If the Holy Spirit is moving in peace and intimate worship, then responding with joy and shouting is the wrong response in the same way that sitting in silence during a time of jubilee would be.
We need to be able to tell what He is doing and flow with that! Going a direction He is not going is like trying to paddle your boat upstream instead of flowing with the direction the river is going.
The key is knowing what is right at what time. That takes discernment and learning to understand the way the Spirit moves, interacts, and works amidst His people. This takes developing sensitivity to His flow. It takes spending time with Him in prayer, developing closeness of fellowship and relationship.
To prepare ourselves to take advantage of the opportunities the Spirit provides in the “moment” we must worship through the week. We must pursue God each day and allow Him to speak into our lives. When we seek God through the week, Sunday will mean that much more to us, and on Sundays we must come expecting and believing God to do an incredible thing!